As part of our Southern Maryland restaurant research, Nancy and I ventured over the border into Charles County and the town of Benedict. That’s where the British landed preparatory to burning Washington in 1814 (a section of the White House is still marked by the burning), and it also was where the Maryland 19th Regiment was formed in 1863, specifically to serve as soldiers. Bet you didn’t know that.
Today Benedict is a sleepy town on the Patuxent River with a nice Catholic church and a magnificent fire station. It sits right next to the northern bridge over the Patuxent. There used to be more restaurants in Benedict, but between fire and hurricane damage, only Ray’s Pier survives. It has a great view of the river.
We found Ray’s Pier when Nancy was searching Yelp or Trip Advisor reviews. We always look for negative as well as positive reviews, the latter usually to identify the character defect of the person writing the negative review. Someone had complained that they’d called the restaurant and asked, “Do you cook with soy oil?” and the restaurant hung up the phone without a word This, I decided, was a place saturated with local character, a place utterly without guile.
Nancy and I arrived early and turned out to be the first ones there, although others followed. We entered through the bar and went to a large well ventilated room that clearly had been designed for eating steamed crabs, and crabs “when we can get them” are the biggest draw for Ray’s Pier, as with many other Southern Maryland restaurants.
The server got us menus and water and recommended the homemade vegetable crab soup, which he said was made from his grandmother’s recipe. He also recommended the crab cakes, which, like the soup, were made in-house. Nancy got the crab cake, and I ordered soft shell crab sandwich. We both got the soup, and we both asked for only water to drink. I overheard the gentlemen at the bar growl, “No beer? No whiskey?” Chastened, I relented and, when the server returned, ordered a beer. I guess I know who answers the phone.
The crab soup arrived with that gentle aroma of Old Bay.
It was extraordinarily thick with vegetables and crab, thick enough that you could eat most of it with a fork and then just turn up the cup and drink that delicious broth, at least if Nancy weren’t with you. Hats off to Grandmother.
The sandwiches arrived promptly, like the soup, and they were piping hot. They had been fried, and tasted very good, as crab cakes should. And note the toasted bun.
Nancy observed that they had very little filling. That’s the way crab cakes should be, and so often are not. Each came on a basic hamburger bun, nothing fancy, just a straightforward bun.
The crab cakes came with a very nice cole slaw. The cabbage was fresh and there was more cabbage than dressing, which is the key to cole slaw, and so much else in life.
My softshell crab was just as good. Doesn’t that look delicious? It was.
We chatted a bit with the server. As we’d seen time and again elsewhere, this has been a brutal time for crab houses all around the Bay. Crab yields are way down, and prices are way up. Some days later I bought a pound of jumbo lump crabmeat for Nancy’s other-worldly crab cakes at our local seafood emporium. The price was double last year’s price (but worth it for the best crab cakes ever). The server attributed the poor harvest to overfishing of female crabs, and wished that there would be a one-year ban on harvesting female crabs to get the supply back up.
With the dearth of crabs, things are tough for Ray’s Pier and other crab houses. First came the COVID lockdowns and then a bad harvest. A number of places have gone out of business, and it’s a shame. The loss goes well beyond the effect on the owners and their employees. These crab houses remind me of old school barbecue places, and face troubles parallel to those discussed in John Shelton Reed’s On Barbecue. Both bring people together and carry on proud and invaluable — and delicious — traditions. They’re uniquely American landmarks, treasures. Like barbecue places like Grady’s, Ramey’s, and others, they merit designation as UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites.
I’ll be reviewing more places like Ray’s Pier and the Drift Inn in the coming days as Nancy and I continue to explore Southern Maryland. We’ve found that the crab houses have a great mix of people, fresher seafood, and much, much lower prices than in the newer urban and suburban places. Head to Ray’s Pier, and enjoy a delicious taste of tradition.
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